Monday, May 25, 2015

Drawing in Silver and Gold at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns 

National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

May 3 – July 26, 2015

Reviewed by Ed Voves

If you look at metalpoint drawing in the context of Western art,  you might easily see it as a fascinating sidebar to the famous rivalry of drawing vs. the primacy of painting.

For artists during the Renaissance, the technique of drawing with a silver-tipped stylus was an invaluable means of creative expression. Metalpoint drawing enabled artists like Hans Holbein the Elder to produce accurate and life-life sketches as preliminary drafts or as source records for their major works.

Hans Holbein the Elder, Portrait of a Woman, c.1508

Metalpoint's heyday did not outlive the Renaissance. The growing use of graphite pencils, pastel crayons and sophisticated methods for preserving charcoal sketches pushed metalpoint drawing toward the brink of oblivion by the 1700's.

The fascinating exhibit, Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., presents a badly needed reappraisal of metalpoint drawing. Silverpoint, the most prevalent form of metalpoint, did fall from favor due to the invention of the wood-encased lead (actually graphite) pencil. The story of metalpoint, however, is also one of revival.  Metalpoint came back into favor during the Victorian era and is in continued use today.

Amazingly, the National Gallery exhibition is the first full-scale museum display of metalpoint drawing ever mounted. Drawing in Silver and Gold was prepared with the collaboration of the British Museum, where it will later appear.

Preparation of Drawing in Silver and Gold began in 2008.  Hundreds of metalpoint works were examined in collections around the world. Every detail, artistic and technical, of metalpoint drawing was exhaustively studied. 

Special attention was given to the types of prepared paper used in metalpoint drawings. To ensure that a mark is produced by the artist's stylus, the paper must be coated with a solution containing abrasive substances - bone dust, white lead, and water mixed with glue was a popular recipe in Renaissance Italy.  The "grit" of the paper causes traces of the silver or gold-tipped stylus to remain behind and the nearly indelible line of metalpoint is produced. 

Metalpoint drawing actually dates to the the Middle Ages, as we will discuss. But when you  behold Leonardo's silverpoint Bust of A Warrior, it is easy to see why the exhibit's       curators make so much of this sensational work.

Bust of A Warrior is an indisputable masterpiece. It dates to the years 1475 to 1480, when the young Leonardo (1452-1519)  was still trying to make  a name for himself. The drawing of a scowling, armor-clad condottiere is believed to be a demonstration piece. 

Bust of A Warrior recalls the profile portraits, based on Roman coins and medallions, that were so popular during the early Renaissance. These profiles were already going out of style, replaced by three-quarters view portraits, pioneered by Antonello da Messina in Italy and Jan van Eyck in the Netherlands. But for Leonardo's purposes, the profile view enabled him to show the hard-edged precision of silverpoint in the sharply drawn, dragon-winged helmet and the lion's head mounted on the warrior's breastplate.

As amazing as these details of armor accoutrements may be, the more subtle shading-effects in Leonardo's portrait are truly great. Shades or shadows in metalpoint are not produced by rapidly-made strokes. Rather, closely-spaced parallel lines are drawn with varying degrees of pressure on the point of the stylus. A similarly exacting procedure of drawing cross-hatching lines is also used.

In the case of Bust of A Warrior, Leonardo created shadows from minute parallel lines with a degree of skill that is astonishing. Leonardo described his technique as taking "care that the shadows and lights be united, or lost in each other: without any hard strokes or lines."

Leonardo's advice was not easy to follow. This may partly account for the reason that metalpoint drawings in Renaissance Italy were never accepted as finished works of art. 

Raphael, The Heads of the Virgin and Child, c.1509

Even in the accomplished hand of Raphael, silverpoint remained a preparatory technique. To our eyes, the breathtakingly beautiful The Heads of the Virgin and Child, dating to around 1509, is a masterpiece. For Raphael, metalpoint drawing was "step one."

In Northern Europe, metalpoint drawing followed a similar course to that of Italy, developing further in the 1500's after interest in it had waned in Italy. 

Metalpoint evolved from the illustrations in Medieval manuscripts. It is believed that monk artists used the stylus to press the outline of the image onto vellum, which was painted over with color pigments to created the finished picture. At some point, it was discovered that treating or coating the pages would produce a texture that retained a visible line in the shape of metallic particles from the silver point of the stylus.

Very few early metalpoint sketches have survived but some of the drawings that were created to record the details of major paintings still exist. 

Circle of Rogier van der Weyden, Saint Mary Magdalene, c.1455/1465

On display in the National Gallery exhibition is Saint Mary Magdalene by Rogier van Weyden (1399-1464), created in silverpoint around 1455. It most likely was drawn by an assistant of the great Dutch painter, though there is a similar work on view definitely done by van der Weyden himself. This silverpoint is a direct copy of St. Mary Magdalene as she appears on the right-hand panel of the Braque Triptych, painted by van der Weyden in 1452 and now one of the great treasures of the Louvre.

Interestingly, this magnificent silverpoint depiction of St. Mary Magdalene was owned by Richard Payne Knight, a member of the 18th century Society of Dilettanti, and bequeathed to the British Museum in 1824. This shows how metalpoint drawings created by great artists came to be cherished in Northern Europe even when not originally intended as formal works of art. 

Albrecht Durer was one of the supreme metalpoint artists of all time. Durer's works, whether paintings, prints or silverpoint drawings like the wonderful A Dog Resting, were prized  during his lifetime and have never gone out of favor. 

Albrecht Dürer, A Dog Resting,1520

A Dog Resting is believed to have been looted  from the Albertina Museum in Vienna by by one of Napoleon's officials, Baron Dominque-Vivant Denon. It was later owned during the nineteenth century by William Thomas Beckford, whose vast wealth from sugar plantations in Jamaica enabled him to buy whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted it. A Dog Resting was one of his more intelligent and tasteful purchases.

One of the early collectors of Durer's drawings during the 1500's was Arnold van Berestyn, from Haarlem in the Netherlands. Van Berestyn's portrait was painted by Hendrik Goltzius, who shortly thereafter took up silverpoint drawing. By this time, metalpoint drawing had all but died out in the Netherlands. In an excellent essay in the companion volume to Drawing in Silver and Gold, An Van Camp, curator of Dutch and Flemish prints and drawings at the British Museum, speculates that it "is not unthinkable that the German artist's work inspired the Dutchman..."

Hendrik Goltzius (1558-1617) is one of the protagonists of Drawing in Silver and Gold. His silverpoint drawings can stand up to Leonardo's and Durer's, which is high-praise indeed. With one hundred silverpoint drawings to his credit, Goltzius triggered the first revival of metalpoint drawing after its Renaissance golden age.  Among others, he influenced Jacques de Gheyn II and (indirectly) Rembrandt to become skillful practitioners of metalpoint. 

Hendrick Goltzius, Three Studies of a Man's Head,1587

Goltzius is a fascinating figure. His right hand was maimed in a fire during his childhood, but this did not stop him from becoming an artist and printmaker. His silverpoints are small in size and drawn on tafeletten, stiff paper boards, normally used as notebooks and commercial registers and intended to be wiped clean and reused. 

Hendrick Goltzius, Young Woman Reading a Book, 1591

While some of  the silverpoints created by Goltzius were clearly intended as studies, others like the portrait of his sister reading was a splendid portrait in its own right. 
Goltizius was an artist with a flair for capturing the character and individuality of the people he portrayed in his drawings.  His empathy and insight into humanity is notably apparent in the portrait of his thirteen-year old stepson, Jacob Matham. 

Hendrick Goltzius, Portrait of Jacob Matham, 1584

I was truly moved by Goltzius' works in the exhibition.  Goltzius painted works in a florid Mannerist style, very much of the late 1500's in spirit and giving little indication of the artistic glory soon to shower upon Holland. But his metalpoint drawings are a different story. When one views these remarkable portrait sketches, it is truly remarkable that Goltzius worked decades before Frans Hals, Rembrandt and the other great Dutch portrait painters. It is no exaggeration to claim a place for Goltzius among the trailblazers of the Dutch Golden Age.

The Dutch-inspired revival of metalpoint drawing, however, faded away by the beginning of the 1700's. During the eighteenth century, the term "artist's pencil" was used, for the most part, in reference to small brushes for watercolor painting or oil sketching. It most certainly did not refer to  the silverpoint stylus.

Shortly after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, interest revived in metalpoint drawing. Artists in Britain had been prevented from traveling to continental Europe for over two decades, except for a brief truce in 1802. After the battle of Waterloo, 1815, the glories of European art were once again available for study and reflection. This led to three major developments in the arts over the course of the nineteenth century: the fascination with Medieval culture in the form of the Gothic Revival, a rediscovery of the art of the early Renaissance in Italy and the "hands on" Arts and Crafts movement.

Awakened interest in metalpoint drawing was a factor in all three of these revivals. Major artists, beginning with William Dyce (1806-1864), went from studying Raphael's silverpoint drawing to creating their own.  

Over the course of the nineteenth century, a veritable "Who's Who" of British artists engaged in metalpoint drawing. William Holman Hunt, Edward Burne-Jones and Alphonse Legros used this medium with distinction, chiefly in studies for major works. But Joseph Edward Southall, little remembered today, created a finished work in 1899, Head of a Girl, which is a metalpoint masterpiece.

Joseph Edward Southall, Head of a Girl, 1899

The nineteenth century metalpoint revival is brilliantly covered in the companion book to Drawing in Silver and Gold. Interest in metalpoint extended to the art loving public. The art supply company, Winsor and Newton, sold metalpoint kits aimed at the mass market from 1896 to 1910. The kits included a silverpoint stylus and a sketchbook with prepared pages. 

Why silverpoint should have appealed to the public at a time when its exacting standards were constantly being discussed in art journals is an interesting point. Perhaps the very difficulty of using metalpoint was a factor. With so much of art seeming to get easier - the Eastman Kodak "Brownie" camera was introduced in 1900 - perhaps people were looking for a creative challenge!

Around this time, experimentation was made with the goldpoint stylus. Oddly enough, silverpoint drawings turn a gold or russet brown color through oxidation. Goldpoint produces a delicate silvery color which never tarnishes. 

Metalpoint waxed and waned in popularity. But it never again faced extinction as it did during the 1700's. During the twentieth century,  Joseph Stella declared "my ardent wish to draw with all the precision possible, using the inflexible media of silverpoint and
goldpoint that reveal instantly the clearest graphic eloquence." 

Joseph Stella, Self-Portrait, c. 1925

Stella's powerful self-portrait did exactly that, exploring the full-range of metalpoint's toolkit just as Leonardo's Bust of a Warrior had done centuries before.

Metalpoint's utility has begun to explored in abstract works like Susan Schwalb's Strata #295, created in 1998. Works like this are quite a departure from those of Raphael and Goltzius but their effect on the arts is powerful and positive. Metalpoint is here to stay.

Susan Schwalb, Strata #295, 1998

There is no last word on the study of metalpoint. There is no concluding remark to make except to acknowledge the achievements of the National Gallery curators and their colleagues at the British Museum for Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns. Thanks to this magnificent exhibition, metalpoint drawing will henceforth be viewed as a major genre in the visual arts.

But we must acknowledge, as Stacey Sell of the National Gallery remarks, "Even to curators and conservators with years of exposure to this medium, these drawings seem almost miraculous."

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Images courtesy of the  National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Introductory Image:                                                                                                       Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452-1519) Bust of a Warrior, c. 1475/1480, Silverpoint on cream prepared paper sheet: 28.7 × 21.1 cm (11 5/16 × 8 5/16 in.) mat: 55.9 × 40.6 cm (22 × 16 in.) On loan from The British Museum, London, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Hans Holbein the Elder (German, 1465-1524) Portrait of a Woman, c.1508, Silverpoint, brush and black and brown ink, over charcoal and leadpoint, heightened with white on white prepared paper overall (Oval): 14.4 x 10.3 cm (5 11/16 x 4 1/16 in.) mat: 14 x 11 in. National Gallery of Art, Woodner Collection

Raphael (Italian, 1483-1520) The Heads of the Virgin and Child, c.1509, Silverpoint on pink prepared paper sheet: 14.2 × 11.1 cm (5 9/16 × 4 3/8 in.) mat: 55.9 × 40.6 cm (22 × 16 in.) On loan from The British Museum, London,© The Trustees of the British Museum

Circle of Rogier van der Weyden (Dutch, 1400-1464), Saint Mary Magdalene, c.1455/1465, Silverpoint on cream prepared paper sheet: 17.6 × 13 cm (6 15/16 × 5 1/8 in.) mat: 55.9 × 40.6 cm (22 × 16 in.) On loan from The British Museum, London, © The Trustees of the British Museum, Bequeathed by Richard Payne Knight, 1824

Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528) A Dog Resting (recto), 1520, Silverpoint over traces of carbon black on pale pink prepared paper (recto) sheet: 12.8 × 18 cm (5 1/16 × 7 1/16 in.)  On loan from The British Museum, London, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Hendrick Goltzius (Dutch, 1558-1617) Three Studies of a Man's Head (recto),1587, Silverpoint and possibly leadpoint on cream prepared vellum sheet: 14.8 × 13.2 cm (5 13/16 × 5 3/16 in.) mat: 55.9 × 40.6 cm (22 × 16 in.) On loan from The British Museum, London, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Hendrick Goltzius (Dutch, 1558-1617) Young Woman Reading a Book (Portrait of Sophia Goltzius, Sister of the Artist?), Seen from Above, 1591, Metalpoint (probably silverpoint) on yellow prepared paper or parchment sheet: 10.3 × 8.6 cm (4 1/16 × 3 3/8 in.) Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett

Hendrick Goltzius (Dutch, 1558-1617) Portrait of Jacob Matham, the Artist's Stepson, Aged Thirteen, 1584, Metalpoint (probably silverpoint) on prepared vellum sheet: 9.6 × 6.1 cm (3 3/4 × 2 3/8 in.) framed: 38.5 × 31 cm (15 3/16 × 12 3/16 in.) Teylers Museum, Haarlem

Joseph Edward Southall (English, 1861-1944) Head of a Girl, 1899, Metalpoint (probably silverpoint) with scratching on white prepared paper sheet: 20 × 17.7 cm (7 7/8 × 6 15/16 in.) framed: 33.66 × 31.75 × 3.81 cm (13 1/4 × 12 1/2 × 1 1/2 in.) The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Purchased with funds from the Schweppe Art Acquisition Fun

Joseph Stella (American, 1877-1946), Self-Portrait, c. 1925, Metalpoint (probably silverpoint) and graphite on white prepared paper sheet: 76.7 × 56.4 cm (30 3/16 × 22 3/16 in.) Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with the Alice Newton Osborn Fund, the Katharine Levin Farrell Fund, the Margaretta S. Hinchman Fund, the Joseph E. Temple Fund, and with funds contributed by Marion Boulton Stroud and Jay R. Massey, 1988

Susan Schwalb (American, 1944 -) Strata #295, 1998, Silver, gold, copper, aluminum, brass, and platinumpoint on Video Media paper sheet: 60.96 × 60.96 cm (24 × 24 in.) framed: 76.2 × 76.2 cm (30 × 30 in.) Eric and Patricia Chafe Collection

Monday, May 18, 2015

Art Eyewitness Review: Living with Mindfulness by Christophe André

Looking at Mindfulness

              25 Ways to Live in the Moment through Art           

By Christophe André
Translated by Trista Selous
Blue Rider Press/$27.95/292 pages  

Reviewed by Ed Voves

There comes a point each time we visit an art museum, when we must move on. We commune with a work of art... then on to the next painting or sculpture. On to the next gallery ... and ultimately out the museum door and on to the next experience.

In Christophe André's splendid new book, Looking at Mindfulness, we find that this museum-going routine replicates that of negtiating the wider realm of life. André counsels us to embrace each moment of life as a precious gift of the cosmos. No matter how long we live - or how many times we may view a work of art - each experience is a unique, never-to-be repeated event. 

This intense awareness of life is called mindfulness.                                                                                                                                                                                                 André is a psychiatrist at the Sainte-Anne Hospital in Paris, where he leads groups of patients in meditation sessions.  Mindfulness is one of the key elements of these sessions during which individuals focus  on the immediate circumstances of their lives. In mindfulness, close attention is paid to the very act of breathing that sustains our lives. 

André applies this careful scrutiny to the contemplation  of art. In  Looking at Mindfulness, he  created a "virtual" exhibition featuring twenty-five works of art. These paintings were carefully selected to create a similar effect as the display of religious icons. Just as icons help focus the attention of devout persons to the presence of God, André's picture gallery guides us to the conscious embrace of the present moment.

Among the works chosen by André, some are so familiar as to need no introduction, notably Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World (1948) and Claude Monet's The Magpie (1868). But André always has interesting insights to share about all of these masterpieces. 

Claude Monet,The Magpie, 1868-69

Georges de La Tour's The Penitent Magdalen, the introductory image in this review, serves as a starting point to a discussion of the power of personal reflection. André brilliantly notes that the real reflection in this work is not the mirror image of the candle. Instead, it is the soulful thoughts of Mary Magdalen. This is an evocation of what the great theologian, Teilhard de Chardin, called "the dark night of the soul," the moment of spiritual crisis before the dawn of redemption or enlightenment.

According to André, mindfulness can “radically alter our relationship to the world, ease our suffering and enhance our joys.”

Mindfulness, André stresses, does not come "easy." It is based on diligent, dedicated practice. Mindfulness is also an embrace of life, not a retreat from  its problems. André quotes the great Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh, “Meditation is not evasion: it is a serene encounter with reality.”

Much human unhappiness results from grasping after everlasting happiness in its various disguises: power, wealth, social uniformity. Instead, mindfulness helps us live meaningful lives in situations where we are not in control or safe. André's commentary on Hans Holbein's portrait, Sir Thomas More (1527), offers valuable insights on this theme.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Sir Thomas More, 1527

Holbein's portrait of "The Man for All Seasons" is a personal favorite. This great work, one of the masterpieces of the Frick Collection, played a major role in shaping my appreciation for the way that art can depict the "inner person" of an Individual. 

I was familiar with color reproductions of Holbein’s Sir Thomas More. Then, in 1983, during one of my first art expeditions to New York City, I received a bit of a shock. The Morgan Library presented a “once in a lifetime” exhibition of Holbein’s portrait sketches of the nobles and church leaders of Henry VIII’s court. Included among these Tudor worthies was Holbein’s drawing of Thomas More upon which the famous portrait was based.

Holbein’s sketches brilliantly captured the effect of Henry VIII’s reign of terror on those around him. Anxiety, fear, duplicity and ambition were etched into the faces of King Henry’s courtiers. Thomas More was no exception. To my surprise, More’s countenance in the Holbein sketch was marked by a degree of tension and combativeness that does not appear in the formal portrait.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Sir Thomas More, c.1526-7

The discrepancy between Holbein’s draft and finished work was a revelation to me – and still is. I saw the portrait in the Frick collection a short time after the Morgan exhibition and every time I visit the Frick I spend some time with this remarkable work. I have come to believe that the finished portrait does not mask the inner uncertainties evident in the sketch. Rather, the portrait documents the emotional and spiritual growth of Thomas More. Holbein's painting evokes More's fortitude, courage and his religious faith as he watched the world of Christian Europe collapse around him during the Reformation.

André emphasizes another of Sir Thomas More’s personal attributes: his intelligence. More understood that he could not impose his own will on the deteriorating situation, despite his position as Lord Chancellor. He knew what was feasible and what was not. Being intelligent, Andre writes, starts ”by observing what is, rather than trying from the outset to impose our presence on reality.”

In a treacherous world, More refused to scheme or plot against Henry VIII. He famously refused to take the Oath of Supremacy making Henry VIII the Supreme Head of the Church of England. But he remained a loyal Englishman even when he was executed in 1535 on a fabricated charge of treason. More performed the inspiring feat of remaining true to his conscience and to the ideals of his country.

More put into practice what John Keats later called “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Negative Capability means that we can control ourselves when the world around us is out of control. This seeming contradiction provides the key to André’s analysis of an unsettling work of art, Fra Angelico’s fresco painting, Christ Mocked in the Presence of the Virgin and Saint Dominic.

Fra Angelico, Christ Mocked in the Presence of the Virgin and Saint Dominic,1438

Fra Angelico painted scenes from the life of Christ in the monk's rooms at the Convento di San Marco in Florence.  These paintings impose a living presence in the small rooms or cells of the monks. Christ Mocked in the Presence of the Virgin and Saint Dominic is the height of a tall man. But its size (6.13 x 4.95 ft or  187 by 151 cm) is not what leaves an indelible imprint on our minds.

Christ Mocked in the Presence of the Virgin and Saint Dominic is a masterpiece of surrealism painted exactly five centuries before André Breton mounted the International Surrealist Exhibition in 1938.

Fra Angelico, Christ Mocked (detail)

In this disturbing work, Jesus is assaulted by the disembodied hands of his persecutors. Except for the head of one spitting assailant, who tips a "Robin Hood" style cap in a gesture derisive deference, we see nothing except hands raining-down blows, pressing a crown of thorns on Christ's head.

Jesus sits upon a throne, holding a wooden staff and an orb, as if he were a king. Fra Angelico, however, asserts that he is in fact Christ the King. In a brilliant touch, Fra Angelico makes the blindfold a thin band of cotton gauze. Christ is not blinded but can see all. He is a model of kingly deportment, of grace under pressure ... of living in negative capability. 

André makes a telling point by reminding us that acting in the spirit of negative capability is within the power of mere mortals as well as saints and redeemers. He reminds us of the experience of Viktor Frankl while a prisoner of the Nazis in Dachau. One day, a fellow prisoner roused Frankl and others in his hut to go out to the assembly grounds to see a “wonderful sunset.”  They responded and at that moment they asserted their humanity in a way the Nazis could not control.  By choosing to regard beauty in a environment of death and enslavement, Frankl and the other prisoners became more fully alive and more free than the Nazi camp guards.
Living in Mindfulness is not primarily oriented toward religious themes or living in mindfulness during particularly horrific situations like the Holocaust. Mindfulness is for living in the present moment. Certainly, the "daily grind" of twenty-first century life throws a host of threats our way. The relentless stream of TV ads, radio talk-show chatter, telephone calls and emails  threatens our emotional well-being as much as "Big Brother" propaganda broadcasts. André writes:

Mindfulness helps us to become aware of all this hidden pollution of our minds, and protect ourselves against it. It enables us to restore our capacity for introspection and reconnect with ourselves, rather than sustaining ourselves with a constant drip-feed of external orders, distractions and activations.  

And then there is life itself that calls upon us to live mindfully, to act with  negative capability. André  illustrates the undeniable fact of  mortality and  human fraility with wonderful paintings by two very dissimilar artists, J.M.W. Turner and Antoine Watteau.       

 J.M.W.Turner, Approach to Venice, 1844

Turner's Approach to Venice shows the slowing dying, steadily-sinking city of Venice in all its radiant beauty. The sun is setting, the moon rising, with life and love flourishing - even as the Adriatic Sea rises a little higher each day. At some point. Venice will sink but that time is not THIS MOMENT.

Living with Mindfulness is a book about life appreciation more than art appreciation. It asserts the value of each human life and of living as our "self" here and now. But, as André also convincingly demonstrates, "picture study"  is indispensable to the Oracle of Delphi's  counsel to "know thyself."

Jean-Antoine Watteau,  Pierrot, 1718-19

Look at Antoine Watteau's pathetic, lovable clown, Pierrot. His pants are too short and his sleeves too long. Nobody is paying any attention to him. Pierrot is a bundle of insecurities, faults, failings - and unexpected strengths too. He has the capability of living in this moment.

Have you seen this fellow lately?


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of Blue Rider Press, the Metropolitan  Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., Musée d'Orsay, Paris, the Frick collection, Convent of San Marco, Florence via Wikimeda Images, the Royal Collection Trust, and the Musée du Louvre 

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         Georges de La Tour (French, 1593–1653) The Penitent Magdalen, Oil on canvas,
52 1/2 x 40 1/4 in. (133.4 x 102.2 cm), c. 1640.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1978, (1978.517)  Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York  

Cover Image of Looking at Mindfulness, Courtesy of Blue Rider Press

Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) The Magpie, Oil on canvas, H. 89; W. 130 cm.,1868-69.
© RMN-Grand Palais,Musée d'Orsay, Paris 

Hans Holbein The Younger (German, 1497/98–1543) Sir Thomas More, Oil on panel,           29 ½ x 23 ¾ inches, 1527. The Frick Collection, New York. Photo: Michael Bodycomb. 

Hans Holbein the Younger (German, 1497/8-1543) Sir Thomas More, c.1526-7, Black and coloured chalks, the outlines pricked for transfer | 39.8 x 29.9 cm (sheet of paper), RCIN 912268 Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2015

Fra Angelico, (Italian, ca. 1395–1455) Christ Mocked in the Presence of the Virgin and Saint Dominic, Fresco, 187 x 151 cm., 1438. Convent of San Marco, Florence, and The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. 

Joseph Mallord William Turner (British, 1775-1851) Approach to Venice, Oil on canvas,  overall: 62 x 94 cm (24 7/16 x 37 in.), 1844. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Andrew W. Mellon Collection 1937.1.110     
Jean-Antoine Watteau (French, 1684-1721) Pierrot, formerly known as Gilles, Oil on canvas, H 1.85 m; W. 1.50 m, c. 1718-19, Bequest of Dr. Louis La Caze, 1869, 1869 M.I. 1121 Musée du Louvre, Paris                                                                                                                                                                     

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Ink and Gold: Art of the Kano at the Philadelphia Museum of Art


 Ink and Gold: Art of the Kano

Philadelphia Museum of Art

February 16 - May 10, 2015

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Ink and Gold, the magnificent exhibition of the Kano school of Japanese art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is entering its final week. Shortly before it opened to the public, back in February, I saw the exhibition in the first of its three rotations. Kano paintings are such precious and fragile art works that they could not be displayed for the entire duration of the exhibit.

Recently, I made a return visit and was as astonished at the scale and beauty of the Kano works as I was the first time - perhaps more so.

The Kano school was a hereditary succession of artists, many of whom were actually linked by blood ties. Kano art works, many of them wall-sized landscapes, were painted on silk with ink, as in classic Chinese art. Color pigments were increasingly used as the Kano artists emphasized Japanese themes and settings. Shimmering backgrounds of gold leaf completed these works which adorned the palaces and castles of the ruling elite of Japan.

Zhou Maoshu Admiring Lotuses, 15th century

From generation to generation, beginning with Kano Masanobu (1434–1530) to the last masters of this tradition, Kano Hōgai (1828–1888) and Hashimoto Gahō (1835–1908), Kano art set an amazing record for longevity and narrative power.

Over the course of four centuries, the Kano school created a distinctive artistic technique and a vision to match.  These artists painted a sage meditating beneath a pine tree on a lady's fan with the same seamless perfection as an episode from The Tale of Genji ranging across a wall screen. 

Despite the singular nature of the  works on view in the Ink and Gold exhibit, I initially found the Kano paintings hard to comprehend. There are a number of reasons for this. The primary one was that I found it difficult to accept that the beauty of the Kano paintings served to gild the brutal, if artfully disguised, power of the Tokugawa Shogunate that dominated Japan from 1615 to 1868.

Paulownia and Pines with Phoenix, c. 1802–16

Also, the extravagant use of gold leaf for the background of the Kano paintings clashed with Western tradition. Gold leaf was used in Europe during the Middles Ages and the early Renaissance to create a heavenly or spiritual atmosphere for religious paintings. Kano paintings were commissioned, for the most part, as secular works of art.

By stepping back for some reflective observation of the "whole" and the "parts" of the Kano paintings, I eventually came a bit closer to understanding the Kano school of art. Fortunately, the curators at the Philadelphia Museum of Art have provided insightful commentary to guide my rather fumbling efforts.

The first way to understand the role of the Kano artists is to remember that Japan during this period was a "locked country" or Sakoku. Almost all contact with the outside world was forbidden. No Japanese citizen could travel abroad and contact with the West was limited to a single Dutch commercial legation in Nagasaki.

Ideas and cultural influences from beyond Japan could be appreciated to some extent but only if viewed through the constricted world view imposed by the Shogunate. The shoguns were determined to maintain Chinese artistic motifs and Zen Buddhist religious concepts. In doing so, the shoguns asserted their cultural sophistication. As patrons of the Kano art school, the Shogunate leaders acted in much the same way as the "Robber Barons" of post-Civil War America who bought vast collections of Old Master art from Europe to deflect criticism of their dubious business practices. The iron hands of both elites were masked by very elegant gloves.

The creativity of the Kano artists, however, enabled them to evade the constraints imposed by the Tokugawa Shogunate. By comparing two of the signature works from the Ink and Gold exhibition, we can see how the Kano artists embraced the whole world even though they were denied travel visas.

The two works are Tigers in a Bamboo Grove, a masterpiece from the 1630's by the greatest of the Kano artists, Kano Tan'yu (1602–1674), and Two Dragons, created in 1885, at the very end of the Kano tradition.

Tigers in a Bamboo Grove shows two tiger cubs in a playful tussle. They are safeguarded by their mother, who observes them from a bamboo thicket. If we look closely at the young cub in this detail, the stylized representation of the tiger is immediately apparent. And it is vitally important to Kano art to understand why.

Tigers in a Bamboo Grove (detail), mid-1630s

Tigers, as well as house cats, are not indigenous to Japan. The Japanese certainly knew what real tigers looked like by 1600, as Samurai warriors hunted tigers in Korea during the ill-fated military campaigns of the 1590's.

Kano artists depicted a different tiger altogether. The Kano tiger was a spiritual animal, symbolizing earthly wisdom. Tigers represented the West in Zen philosophy and were often shown accompanying Buddhist sages. In much the same way, Renaissance artists in Italy placed a lion in the library or desert refuge of the Christian saint, Jerome.

The bamboo grove (not shown in this detail) represented resilience and integrity. It was viewed as the abode of tigers, the only animals able to find their way through the thicket. The young tigers in this Kano painting can thus be seen as symbolical of the human preparation to live noble, enlightened lives.

Two Dragons [in Clouds], 1885

Two Dragons, painted  by Kano Hogai in 1885, hearkens back to the ancient tradition in Asia where dragons are powerful, yet benevolent, creatures. Dragons represented yang, the masculine attributes of heat, light, and action. In Japanese Zen-Buddhist art, dragons took on an additional symbolical status, as the Philadelphia Museum of Art curators explain. The dragon represented the "the soaring spirit of the freed satoric (or suddenly enlightened) soul."

These celestial qualities made dragons the perfect counterpart to tigers who were "associated with the earthbound enlightened mind."

Tigers and dragons were often depicted together in Kano paintings, sometimes glowering at each other. In Kano art, these two creatures signified the wisdom and spirituality of a community living in harmony. Likewise, since dragons represented the East and tigers the West, a sense of cosmic unity is implicit in Kano art, at a time when Japan was cut-off from the rest of the world.

Eagle and Pine Tree, c. 1624–26

Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons, late 16th to early 17th century

The artistic vision of the Kano artists was also manifested in naturalistic depictions of their surroundings. Eagle and Pine Tree by  Kano Tan’yu, and Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons by an unnamed Kano artist prove that creative spirits will find beauty at close hand even if they are prevented from observing the world at large. Repressive governments cannot long suppress the instinct for beauty any more than they can crush the desire for liberty.

However, there is no disguising the fact that the Kano artists needed the patronage of the Shogunate to survive economically. When the shogun’s grasp on Japanese society was shaken loose, the privileged position of the Kano school was lost as well. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 returned control of Japan to the emperor and the central government. The ensuing modernization program left little room for gold-leafed depictions of Old Japan. This in turn led to a final, fitting  irony.

Bishamonten Pursuing an Oni, c. 1885

The last admirers and patrons of Kano art were the very Westerners, Europeans and Americans, whose industrial society was being copied and adapted by the Meiji regime. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has particularly rich holdings of Kano art because Ernest F. Fenollosa (1853-1908), an American professor at the Imperial University in Tokyo, became a passionate collector and advocate of Kano art. His collection was later bequeathed to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by his daughter.

And finally, it is fitting to conclude this post with a grateful acknowledgement of the work of Felice Fischer, the Philadelphia Museum’s internationally renowned curator of Japanese and East Asian Art. It is thanks to her vision and efforts that these Kano works of art were able to make the journey to the United States.

Ink and Gold is an exhibition that won’t be seen again for some time.  Or at least not on the breathtaking scale of the present display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is safe to say, however, that the spectacular works of the Kano school of art will now be recognized as masterpieces of world art, not only treasures from the “land of the rising sun.”

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of the Philadelphia  Museum of Art.

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         Figures under a Pine Tree, 16th century. Kano Masanobu, Japanese, 1434 –1530. Ink and gold leaf on paper, folding fan, 7 1/2 × 18 11/16 inches, Tokyo National Museum

Zhou Maoshu Admiring Lotuses, 15th century. Kano Masanobu, Japanese, 1434–1530. Ink and color on paper, hanging scroll, 33 1/4 × 13 inches, Kyushu National Museum, Dazaifu. National Treasure

Paulownia and Pines with Phoenix, c. 1802–16. Kano Isen’in Naganobu, Japanese, 1775–1828. Ink, color, and gold leaf on paper; mounted as a six-fold screen, one of a pair, image 67 13/16 × 143 1/8 inches, Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art, Shizuoka City, Japan

Tigers in a Bamboo Grove (Tigers at Play)(detail), mid-1630s. Kano Tan’yu, Japanese, 1602–1674. Ink, color, and gold leaf on paper, set of four -panel sliding doors, each door 72 13/16 × 55 1/2 inches, Nanzen-ji Temple, Sakyo-ku, Japan. Important Cultural Property

Two Dragons [in Clouds], 1885. Kano Hogai, Japanese, 1828–1888. Ink on paper, framed, 35 1/2 x 53 1/4 inches, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Moncure Biddle in memory of her father, Ernest F. Fenollosa, 1940-41

Eagle and Pine Tree, c. 1624–26. Kano Tan’yu, Japanese, 1602–1674. Ink, color, and gold leaf on paper, sliding doors, each door 81 1/2 × 46 5/8 inches, Nijo-jo Castle, Kyoto. Important Cultural Property

Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons, late 16th to early 17th century. Kano School, Japan, Ink, color, and gold leaf on paper, one of a pair of six-fold screens, 63 1/4 x 142 inches, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Bishamonten Pursuing an Oni, c. 1885. Hashimoto Gaho,  Japanese, 1835–1908. Ink and color on paper; mounted as a  hanging scroll, 49 1/2 × 24 3/4 inches, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Moncure Biddle in memory of her father,  Ernest F. Fenollosa, 1941